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State Department Briefing by Mark C. Toner, April 18, 2011

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–April 18, 2011.  

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Readout of Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman’s Trip to Bahrain
    • U.S. and Saudi Arabia Open Skies Agreement
    • Assistant Secretary Feltman Underscored U.S. Belief in Universal Values / Fundamental Need for Respect for Human Rights / Talks Constructive, Progress Made / Spoke to Both Government and Opposition / Bahraini Government Needs to Respect Human Rights, Address Legitimate Aspirations of Its Own People / Iran Continues to Play a Less Than Constructive Role
    • U.S. Democracy and Governance Programs / Part of U.S. Support for Civil Society, Nongovernmental Organizations / Syria Government Perceives Assistance as a Threat / U.S. is Not Working to Undermine Government / Support of Institutions that Promote Democracy and Democratic Ideals
    • U.S. Concerned About the Asad Regime / President Asad Needs to Address the Legitimate Aspirations of His People / U.S. is Promoting Stronger Civil Societies to Address Aspirations of the Population / U.S. Candid in Relations with Syrian Government / Ambassador Robert Ford / Syrian People to Interpret Reforms / Damascus
    • A Wave of Reform and Change / U.S. Assessing Each Country / Up to Their Government to Address Those Concerns / Protestors Need to Be Respected / Incumbent on Government to Respect and Protect Civilians
    • Algirdas Paleckis / Strong U.S. Bilateral Relationship with Lithuanian Government
    • Egypt is Transitioning through a Difficult Period / International Concern About Iran’s Nuclear Program
    • Six-Party Talks / North Korea Needs to Show a Willingness to Engage in Constructive Dialogue with South Korea / Need to See a Clear, Consistent Pattern of Behavior in the Opposite Direction / U.S. Wants to Play a Supportive Role Moving Forward


1:34 p.m. EDT

MR. TONER: Welcome to the State Department. You already have a question?


MR. TONER: My goodness.

QUESTION: I am, in fact, ready to dive right in.

MR. TONER: (Laughter.) All right. Let me just do a couple things at the top and then I’ll get to your questions.

Just a readout from Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman’s trip to Bahrain: He was there April 17th and today, April 18th, where he met with Bahraini Government officials and representatives of Bahraini civil society. Assistant Secretary Feltman reaffirmed the longstanding commitment of the United States to a strong partnership with both the people and the Government of Bahrain. He also underscored the United States’ belief in universal rights and emphasized the fundamental need for respect for human rights.

Reiterating U.S. support for Bahraini national reconciliation and dialogue, he concurred with the Bahraini leadership’s own embrace of the principles of reform and the respect for rule of law and coexistence. Assistant Secretary Feltman also took the opportunity to compare notes with Bahraini officials on regional developments such as the situation – including U.S. concerns, rather, about Iran’s exploitation of the situation in the region. And he noted that the United States appreciates Bahrain’s cooperation on international efforts to help protect the people of Libya.

Staying in the region, the United States and Saudi Arabia initialed a U.S.-Saudi Arabia Open Skies Agreement. That took place earlier today. The agreement will be applied – which will be applied on the basis of reciprocity pending its entry into force, will liberalize our bilateral aviation relationship. This agreement strengthens and expands our already strong trade and tourism links with Saudi Arabia, and will benefit both American and Saudi Arabian businessmen and – or businesses and travelers. It will expand air service and encourage vigorous price competition by airlines while safeguarding aviation safety and security.


QUESTION: Defer to the wires first.

QUESTION: Can I start with Bahrain? So this time, Mr. Feltman was able to meet with leaders. How high were his meetings and how – I’m quite surprised by the tone of your statement because it seems like the push for demand for the respect of the rights of Bahrainis has been toned down quite a lot. You highlighted the concerns about Iran and your longstanding commitment to the people and the government who have been at loggerheads in recent weeks. Has this tone softened?

MR. TONER: Well, again, you’ve summarized some of what I said. But he also underscored the United States’ belief in universal values and conveyed that belief to the Bahraini authorities. And he also emphasized the fundamental need for respect for human rights. So I wouldn’t say there’s been any softening, but these talks took place in a very constructive atmosphere.

And we believe that this was done in a constructive manner and progress was made, and that going forward, we urge both that ongoing respect for human rights, but as well as the opposition and the Bahraini Government to engage in a political dialogue that leads to resolution.

QUESTION: Can you tell us some of the things that you expressed concerns about – the deaths in prisons, maybe?

MR. TONER: I think I – I mean, I think I’ve spoken to all of the incidents about which we have concern over the past week, including, as you noted, the death of a prominent human rights activist last week.

QUESTION: There are continued, I mean, deaths and human rights abuses taking place in Bahrain that have been documented by human rights groups over the last week and – I mean, the situation in Bahrain has been getting really bad. Last week, there were numerous criticisms of the United States and its approach to Bahrain, and, I mean, even if you’re couching your language at this podium, I hope that we can expect that – I mean, that Secretary Feltman took – can you say that he raised some of these serious issues?

And it sounds as if you’re talking about two different Bahrains because we’ve been talking at the podium about how horrible the situation is in Bahrain right now and U.S. concerns, whereas none of what you just said really reflected the seriousness of the situation there.

MR. TONER: Well, Elise, again, I disagree. Secretary Feltman went to Bahrain. He went there both to speak to the government as well as to the opposition, met with a wide range of actors, and did so in a constructive spirit. But we’ve been very, very clear about where we stand on this, that the Bahraini Government needs to respect human rights and needs to address the legitimate aspirations of its own people, and that was conveyed.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Different subject. I’ll just wait. Can – sorry. Can you explain what the concerns were about Iran’s exploitation? Was that particular to Bahrain in this case? And what is Iran’s exploitation of the crisis?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to get into – too deeply into details and specifics, but others have expressed that concern both with regard to Syria and with regard to Bahrain, the situation there, that Iran continues to play a less than constructive role in the region.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Did you say who he met with, by the way?

MR. TONER: I didn’t. I know that he met with, obviously, his counterpart. But I don’t know beyond that. I’ll try to get details.


QUESTION: Is the United —

MR. TONER: He just – he literally is there now, so I just – and I think on his way back.

Go ahead, James.

QUESTION: Is the United States Government, through any programs or means, trying to destabilize the Asad regime in Syria?

MR. TONER: Well, the premise of your question is whether we are engaged in —

QUESTION: There was no premise. There was no premise. It was a flat-out question. There was no predicate; there was no premise.

MR. TONER: Yes, but, as you know, James, we need to be careful in – to identify what we’re talking about because if you’re talking about a news story based on the contents of – or the alleged contents of classified cables, then I can’t speak to the specific substance of that.

QUESTION: I didn’t ask you to speak to anything specific. My question was, very broadly, is the United States Government, through any programs or means, presently working to destabilize the Asad regime in Syria? If the answer is no, you should feel free to say so.

MR. TONER: Well, we do – and look, this is a – to talk about Syria, but we should also talk globally here. The U.S. democracy and governance programs in Syria, it’s no different than programs that the United States has in many other democratic governments around the world – or countries around the world. This is part of our support for civil society and nongovernmental organizations. What’s different, I think, in this situation is that the Syrian Government perceives this kind of assistance as a threat to its control over the Syrian people.

QUESTION: Well, so, if I can just finish, you’ve responded to the same question twice now. The first time, you spoke to premises that weren’t present in the question. The second time, you told me that we need to speak globally. So I would appreciate it if you could address yourself to the question as I put it to you, and that is –

MR. TONER: Well, I – yeah. No. Then I – okay, James. What I’m trying to do is —

QUESTION: — are we working to undermine that government or not? That’s a very simple –

MR. TONER: No. We are not working to undermine that government. What we are trying to do in Syria, through our civil society support, is to build the kind of democratic institutions, frankly, that we’re trying to do in countries around the globe. My own personal experience, when I was in Poland in the 1990s, we worked enormously with civil society and nongovernmental organizations. The difference here, as I said, is that the Syrian Government perceives this kind of assistance as a threat to its existence.

QUESTION: Is U.S. Government money continually – or continuing to be funding in any way the Movement for Justice and Development?


QUESTION: Can you talk about U.S. support for Barada TV?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to get into the details of what was in the – in today’s story in The Washington Post, beyond the fact that we are working with a variety of institutions and organizations to support their efforts. Freedom of the press, freedom of expression, is an important element of these kinds of programs. And obviously, again, it speaks to the broader context of what we’re trying to do, which is support institutions that promote democracy and democratic ideals.


QUESTION: Right, but actually, I don’t think the article did – I mean, the article talked about Barada TV, but it didn’t really have any information about U.S. support for TV. But isn’t it true that the U.S. Government is providing bandwidth and satellite capability for the TV station to keep it broadcasting in the face of blocking by Iranian Government?

MR. TONER: I’d have to get details of what exactly technical assistance we’re providing them.

QUESTION: But isn’t —

QUESTION: Is the United States funding opposition groups in Syria?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we are – we’re working with a variety of civil society actors in Syria, with the goal here of strengthening freedom of expression and the kind of institutions that we believe are going to be vital to a possible democratic future in Syria.

QUESTION: Given that –

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — President Asad’s regime continues to host Hamas, continues to provide arms and other assistance to Hezbollah, and continues a very close working relationship with Iran, which we have described as the central banker of modern terrorism, I guess it begs the question of why isn’t this Administration working actively to undermine the Asad regime?

MR. TONER: Well, because that’s not the goal of what our programs, our civil society programs, seek to accomplish overseas – around the world. But what they try to do is work within many different countries to build up democratic institutions and, again, try to allow these civil society organizations to strengthen themselves and to become more important actors in their own political transformation. Our goal here is to support the growth of democratic expression, free expression, and to support the universal rights of these populations.


QUESTION: Well, my question wasn’t limited to what our civil society programs are attempting to achieve. My question very broadly was, given everything we know about the Asad regime, why aren’t we as a government actively working to undermine it or destabilize it?

MR. TONER: Well, we are very concerned, and for all the reasons you just cited, about the Asad regime. Look, President Asad needs to address the legitimate aspirations of his people. He spoke, I believe, over the weekend and acknowledged the need to lift the state of emergency as well as implement broader reforms. And certainly, we’re watching closely now to see how those words translate into deed.

QUESTION: Explain how trying to promote democratic institutions in an undemocratic society is not trying to undermine that undemocratic society.

MR. TONER: Well, again, trying to promote a transformation to a more democratic process in the society is not undermining necessarily the existing government. What we’re trying to do, and what President Asad is facing right now, is a push by his very own people to move in a more democratic direction. We have been working for many years, both in Syria and other places in the world, to promote those ideals because we believe they’re in the long-range benefit to these societies.

QUESTION: So it might promote the society while undermining the undemocratic regimes that are holding back the democratic institutions?

MR. TONER: Again, I think it’s important to – we’re promoting stronger civil societies in these countries to address the very real aspirations of these populations and these peoples. If the government runs counter to that, then it’s up to those governments to address those aspirations. It’s not for the U.S. to address those.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Ambassador Feltman also visited Iraq.

MR. TONER: Ambassador?

QUESTION: Feltman.


QUESTION: Do you have anything on why he —

MR. TONER: I don’t have a readout. I think he may be on his way —

QUESTION: Before Bahrain, he went to Iraq —

MR. TONER: Before Bahrain – I’ll try to get you a readout.

QUESTION: — on Friday.

MR. TONER: I’ll try to get you a readout.

QUESTION: You don’t have anything?

MR. TONER: I don’t have a clear readout. Actually, are you sure he was in Iraq before —


MR. TONER: Okay. I’ll try to get a readout.


QUESTION: Mark, do you think that this support for the Syrian opposition will affect the relations between the U.S. Administration and the Syrian Government?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. This —

QUESTION: The support for the opposition, the Syrian opposition, would affect the relations between your Administration and the Syrian Government?

MR. TONER: Well, I mean, Michel, look, we’re very candid in our relations with the Syrian Government, both in voicing our concerns about their most recent crackdown on the protests, legitimate protests, in the face of many, many years of oppressive government – governance by the Asad regime. And we believe that it’s incumbent on President Asad and his government to address these universal aspirations of their people. But we’re going to continue to press our message to the Syrian Government. And as I said, we have an ambassador, Robert Ford, who is on the ground there, and that makes this very clear to the government there very often.

QUESTION: Have you received any complaint from the Syrian Government?

MR. TONER: We’ve not, not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: We’ve heard a lot from the British, French, and German ambassadors about meeting with members of the government, the foreign minister, and criticizing the actions of the Syrian Government, but we haven’t heard that much from Ambassador Ford. Is he speaking out publicly against some of the actions of this government? Because we don’t – we’re really hearing more from the Europeans at this point.

MR. TONER: Right. Well, I do know that he meets regularly with the Syrian Government and uses those opportunities to push our message. I’m not aware of any of his public outreach.

QUESTION: Is it time for a transition in Syria?

MR. TONER: Look, it’s not for us to say when a transition should take place.

QUESTION: Really? I mean, you did say so in Egypt and you did so say in Yemen and you have said so in Libya. So it is – I mean, you have —

MR. TONER: Well, look —

QUESTION: — said that it’s time for a transition in some countries.

MR. TONER: Look, what we have said is it is up to the people of those countries to dictate the pace and the scope of the reform that takes place. We’ve said so —

QUESTION: Well, it sounds like they’re dictating that the pace should be pretty fast.

MR. TONER: You’re absolutely right that President Asad is facing the very real and legitimate concerns of his people. He came out this weekend. He talked about some additional reforms. He talked about lifting the emergency law. These would be positive signs, but ultimately, it’s up to the Syrian people to interpret those as adequate. But the other thing is he said a lot of things before publicly, but we’ve seen very little in reality. We’ve seen very little in the way of action.

QUESTION: So what’s the barometer by which you think that the people have called for change? I mean, is it the size of the protest on the street?

MR. TONER: I mean, we talked about this a couple weeks ago. There is no universal barometer. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of these situations. Obviously, we’re dealing with a wave of reform and a wave of change that’s sweeping through the region. We’re assessing —

QUESTION: So you’re more riding that wave, trying not to dictate it —

MR. TONER: We’re assessing each country. We’re very clear about what we do support, which are the universal aspirations of these populations to express themselves, to ask their governments to do more for them, and to address their legitimate concerns. And indeed, it’s up to the government to address those concerns and to show that they’ve done enough. And if not, then the people will demand more.

QUESTION: Mark, does this Administration have anything to show for two years of attempted engagement with Damascus?

MR. TONER: James, I don’t think we ever thought that was going to be an easy engagement. We did make the case that Ambassador Ford should go to Damascus because we wanted that kind of senior voice to speak to the Syrian Government and to express our views on a variety of situations. He continues to do that.

I can’t tell you whether that plays into President Asad’s attempts to go further and to meet the concerns of his people. That’s a question really for the Syrian Government. But we continue to be very clear about our belief that he needs to do more, his government needs to do more.

QUESTION: New topic?

QUESTION: Change of country?

MR. TONER: Sure, then – go ahead.

QUESTION: Azerbaijan – over the weekend, dozens of protestors also got arrested in Azerbaijan.

MR. TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: They were protesting, and actually the Government of Azerbaijan has been pretty hard on the protestors. Have you been – have you raised this issue with Azerbaijan Government, or do you have any view (inaudible).

MR. TONER: I’d have to check if our – if it – if we’ve raised it through our Embassy there in Baku. But clearly, what we’re saying about places in the Middle East and North Africa applies equally to other countries in that we believe that protestors need to be respected and need to be able to express themselves peacefully, and that’s incumbent on the protestors to act and behave in a peaceful manner to express their aspirations and their demands. But equally so, it’s incumbent on the government to respect and to protect those civilians.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Has Secretary Clinton spoken with Lithuanian Ambassador Pavilionis to express a concern about Lithuania’s totalitarian violation of the human and democratic rights of Algirdas Paleckis who is a journalist and a parliamentarian in Lithuania, who is being threatened with a two-year imprisonment for having quoted on a radio broadcast two sentences of a former Lithuanian defense minister. I just came back from Lithuania, and the trial and the judge have continued to prohibit Mr. Paleckis from leaving Lithuania. This is a man who has never committed a crime, who has simply spoken in accordance with his rights under Article 19.

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: The National Press Club invited Mr. Paleckis to speak. The U.S. Embassy in Vilnius gave him permission to enter the United States, and the court denied him that permission. This is becoming a scandal.

MR. TONER: And well, it’s a scandal that, unfortunately, I’m not up to speed on. But I would just – I’m uncertain whether the Secretary has raised this with the Lithuanian Government. I would imagine that it’s been a topic with our Embassy, but I’ll have to check on, in fact, what –

QUESTION: I spoke – yeah.

MR. TONER: No, I –

QUESTION: I spoke quite a bit with Bob Silberstein about this and with Rosemary DiCarlo, and each one said that they would look into it, whatever that means. And I was told that the White House has a great deal of concern about the situation, and they don’t want it to go to trial. Well, the trial has begun and is going to continue. And the man is being, according to the High Commission of Human Rights, kept under arbitrary detention. He cannot leave the country. And this is outrageous. It’s beginning there. Where are they going to end up, and they call themselves a democracy. This is a complete totalitarian action.

MR. TONER: Well, look, we have a very strong bilateral relationship with the Lithuanian Government. That said, as with many of our strong partners and allies, we do express human rights concerns when we have them. I’m not sure about this case in particular. We’ll try to look into it and give you an update on it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Thank you.

Yeah. James.

QUESTION: Without pressing you to go too far afield from your chosen discipline and profession and so forth, does Secretary Clinton regard that the failure to raise the debt limit would pose catastrophic consequences for the United States and its missions abroad or in any way for this country?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. You said the Secretary would fail – just the framing of your question again.

QUESTION: Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner –

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — President Obama, and other senior Obama Administration officials have recently said that the failure to raise the debt limit would pose catastrophic consequences for the United States, and I wonder if the State Department has any view on that.

MR. TONER: Well, again, the Secretary has been traveling while this debate has been happening here. I’m not aware that she’s addressed it. I have not spoken to her about it. But she has spoken before in previous instances about the problem of a huge national debt and its possible implications for our national security. So I just have to leave it there. I don’t know if she’s spoken to the specific issue that you’re discussing.


QUESTION: The Egyptian foreign minister announced last week that Egypt is willing to resume diplomatic relations with Iran. Will this be a positive or negative development from the U.S. point of view?

MR. TONER: Well, Egypt is obviously transitioning to a – or through a very difficult period. They’re trying to establish a democratic process. They’re trying to address very real economic concerns that were set in motion by some of the events there. But as much as they’re trying to reestablish ties – and we believe would be a partner in expressing international concerns about Iran’s purported nuclear program, that we believe it would be beneficial or constructive. We think they could play a constructive role.

Yeah. In the back.

QUESTION: On North Korea. Secretary Clinton and the South Korean foreign minister last weekend agreed that the denuclearization talks between Seoul and Pyongyang should precede the resumption of Six-Party Talks, and my question is: Is it the U.S. position that their process of resuming Six-Party Talks should be separated from the issues of Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong Island shelling?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I – the premise of your question I would argue with a little bit, but what we’ve said, and I think pretty consistently over the past months is that a successful rapprochement between North and South Korea is an essential first step before we can consider getting involved diplomatically again or even talk about Six-Party talks. We’ve seen a steady pattern of belligerent behavior on the part of the North Korea, as you well cited with the Cheonan incident as well as the artillery barrage several months ago. So we need to see a clear and decisive move in the opposite direction before we can talk about next steps.

QUESTION: That’s been – that was months away. I mean, don’t you think maybe getting back to the Six-Party Talks could help North-South relations? Maybe you should – obviously, since it’s not working your way, maybe if you turn it around, it would work the other way.

MR. TONER: (Laughter.) Look, again, there’s a habit or a tendency to shift this to the United States when clearly, the onus is on North Korea —

QUESTION: I’m not shifting it to the United States. There’s – it’s called the Six-Party Talks.

MR. TONER: Right, but – okay, but you’re asking me. And what I would say is this is not about the Six Parties’ behavior. This is about North Korea’s behavior.

QUESTION: But Mark, from your point of view, I mean, how many months do they have to not commit and —

MR. TONER: It’s not about a period of time that needs to pass. It’s about concrete actions and serious rapprochement.

QUESTION: My question was about the modality, whether —

MR. TONER: And I’m not ready – and I’m not going to talk about the modalities. I said – I laid out what we’re looking for, which is a serious effort to reach out and to be more constructive with the – in its bilateral relationship with South Korea.

QUESTION: But in the meantime, you don’t have any Six-Party Talks and there’s been talk about North Korea reconstituting its nuclear program, moving all those spent fuel rods. So aren’t you concerned that you’re basically giving North Korea another opportunity to reconstitute its program while you wait for North-South relations to improve? I mean, what if they don’t improve for years?

MR. TONER: But Elise, on the other side of this coin is a pattern where we reward bad behavior on the part of North Korea and we hold talks that don’t lead anywhere. And we’ve said very consistently that we’re not going to have talks for talks’ sake.

QUESTION: Wait a minute – okay. But wait a minute, you’re totally saying that unless North Korea makes up with South Korea, that any talks on its nuclear program are not going to go anywhere?

MR. TONER: What we’ve said is that North Korea needs to show that it is willing to engage in a constructive dialogue or manner with South Korea. That’s an essential first step here.

In the back.

QUESTION: Mark, South Korean officials said North Korea’s apology for the Cheonan sinking and the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, that’s not a precondition for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks. What do you think of that?

MR. TONER: South Korean – you said the South Korean – who said that? I didn’t hear the first part of your question.

QUESTION: Wi Sung-lac said that when —

MR. TONER: Wi Sung-lac —

QUESTION: Wi Sung-lac and others.

MR. TONER: Yeah, I’m not going to argue with that. I’m just – go back to what I said before, which is we need to see a consistent pattern of behavior in the other direction.

QUESTION: So the South Koreans don’t have to see an apology in order to get back to the table, but the United States does?

MR. TONER: I didn’t say – and again, you’re putting words in my mouth. I never said that they had to apologize.

QUESTION: No, you’re saying – I mean, I’m just —

MR. TONER: I didn’t say they had to apologize for the Cheonan incident. What I said is we need to see clear, consistent behavior in the opposite direction, i.e. in a constructive manner, in order for us to talk about next steps diplomatically.

QUESTION: So would you say that when Seoul is happy with their relationship with North Korea, then you’ll be satisfied and —

MR. TONER: I think it’s fair to say that we are very supportive of Seoul’s position, the Republic of Korea’s position in this, and we want to play a supportive role moving forward.

QUESTION: Mark, one more?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton did not say much about North Korea in Seoul last week. How would you —

MR. TONER: Who didn’t?

QUESTION: — interpret that?

MR. TONER: Who did not say?

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton did not talk about North Korea in Seoul last week. How would you interpret that?

MR. TONER: Well, she talked about – I’m not sure what came up in her private conversations, but she spoke very forcefully about South —

QUESTION: But no direct message to North Korea.

MR. TONER: I’m sorry, what was her —

QUESTION: But she did not give any direct message to North Korea, not even one word?

MR. TONER: I’m not aware that it came up in her public comments, no.

Great. Is that it? Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:02 p.m.)

Source: state.gov

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